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Momofuku backs down from defending its 'chile crunch' trademark after outcry by small businesses

MAE ANDERSON
April 13, 2024

NEW YORK (AP) -- Momofuku, a food and restaurant brand started by food mogul David Chang, said it won't defend its trademark on the name "chile crunch" after it sparked an outcry by sending cease-and-desist letters to other businesses using the term.

Momofuku started selling its Chili Crunch product in 2020, a crunchy spicy oil with dried peppers and other ingredients like sesame seeds and garlic. It's a riff on Chinese condiment chili crisp and other similar products from other countries. Different variations of chili crisp and other hot sauces have gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years.

Momofuku acquired the trademark for the name "chile crunch" from Chile Colonial in 2023. While Momofuku holds the trademark for "chile crunch," spelled with an "e," it also claims "common law" rights to "chili crunch" with an "i" and has filed for similar trademark status with the U.S. Patent Office for that spelling, which is still pending.

In March, Momofuku sent seven cease-and-desist letters to companies that were calling their product "Chili Crunch" or "Chile Crunch." Most of the companies that received the letter were small brands founded by Asian Americans.

As first reported by The Guardian on April 4, several of the companies took to social media to complain the letters were unfair, particularly since most of the brands are small and David Chang and Momofuku are so well known in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Their complaints went viral, sparking a debate over whether Momofuku -- or anyone -- should be able to own the trademark of the generic sounding chile or chili crunch.

At first, Momofuku stood by its actions. It said in a statement it was obligated to defend its trademark or it risked losing it to a bigger company that might swoop and copy their product if it wasn't defended. But by Friday, the company reversed course and said it would not be enforcing the trademark going forward.

"Over the past week, we have heard the feedback from our community and now understand that the term 'chili crunch' carries broader meaning for many," the company said in an emailed statement. "This situation has created a painful divide between Momofuku, the AAPI community we care deeply about, and other companies sharing grocery store shelves. But the truth is, we all want the same things: to grow, to succeed and to make America's pantries and grocery stores a more diverse place."

Michelle Tew, owner of Malaysian food brand Homiah, was one owner who spoke out on social media after she received a cease-and-desist letter from Momofuku on March 18 that said she had 90 days to stop selling her Sambal Chili Crunch products.

Tew said in an Instagram post that Momofuku's decision not to enforce the trademark is "a step in the right direction," but she hopes Momofuku withdraws the trademark altogether to "continue the conversation and demonstrate its commitment to the growth of AAPI cuisine and culture."

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